ESSAY: Who Are The Returnees In Akwa Ibom?

Akwa Ibom map image via Research Gate.


John James Akpan Udoedehe has an impressive ex this and that in his political profile – former Uyo Local Government Chairman and former senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was also a one-time Minister of State for the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja.

In 2011 he was the governorship candidate for the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, in Akwa Ibom. Though he lost the election to then incumbent Godswill Akpabio, he gave the former a run for his money in what remains the most blood-spilled and ethnicity-tensed election in the annals of electoral contests in the state. Before defecting from the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, to the ACN he was the helmsman of Akpabio’s 2007 governorship campaign.

After his unsuccessful bid for the governorship position in 2011 he has been aspiring to fly governorship flag of the All Progressive Congress, APC, in 2015 and 2019 elections, to no avail. Though his consistency with the main opposition party in the state could be said to be unwavering, his dedication to electoral interest of his party after the 2011 election has been wavering just as he has been suspected to play a fifth columnist role for the party in power. Even so, he remains one of the top gladiators in the politics of Akwa Ibom.

Unlike many Nigerian political officer seekers, he is not good at hiring crowd, yet he can boast of sea of heads at any political event gathered at his instance. He may not have the gift of the gap to lure his audience with alluring words but he has the streetwise-ness to command mass movement, especially among the downtrodden. A cerebral young man called Ofonime Honesty honestly described him as “The man who braved the odds to breathe life into opposition politics in Akwa Ibom”.

So many others see him as having nuisance value. His street bravado, which his adversaries described as touting, is traced to his formative years in his father’s then flourishing transportation business in Uyo, which might have deposited a sizeable sociological gene in him. May be it has more to do with his biological gene than the environmental influence or combination of both.

Whether it is to his advantage or disadvantage, most of Udoedehe’s teeming followers often voluntarily, willy-nilly, charlatanry and in a riffraff-like manner amplify his intentions and actions with distortions, beyond the proportion of the doer of the action. It does not occur to them that overzealous or madcap drive to give a niche to a brand, especially a political brand, when it is unneedful, without subjecting it to ratiocination, with the belief that the brand will be embraced hook, line and sinker by the public, is often packaged higgledy-piggledy, resulting in high propensity of being counterproductive.

When Udoedehe, recently at a public event in Uyo, traced the political history of Akwa Ibom to the fact that the state “always have Lagos returnees coming to become governors” and that time has arrived “to have a home grown person as governor” he probably did not mean to ostracize, inculpate and alienate any segment of the Akwa Ibom populace or cause aspersion on any individual person with a view to drawing artificial fault lines and narrowing 2023 political space in the state.

Unfortunately, what the former senator might not have meant have been making rounds in the state through messy marketing by his minions in any available public place. In attempt to market the message on the need for “home grown person” to be governor, Udoedehe has been inadvertently portrayed as a politician with a complex problem, intimidated by mere speculation of a person or persons with certain connection with Lagos. One who goes to a race with inferiority complex on account of the physique and profile of other contestants meet defeat from the starting line and it would take millennial magic for the person to reach finishing line, let alone winning the race.

As a one-time senator, and later, a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, provided his character and worldview align with his political status, Udoedehe has what it takes to be called a statesman, therefore, going to the market place with pedestrian and parochial postulation aimed at castigating Akwa Ibom indigenes residing in Lagos is unbecoming and condescending of a person that has attained such position in the public.

The keywords in Udoedehe’s message are “home grown” and ‘Lagos returnees”. Whereas the phrases, on the face of it, are simple enough for comprehension by even pupils in the primary schools, ambiguity has crept in through innuendoes deploy by the amplifiers in the course of expatiating the call for change. If where one is brought up has to do with a person’s formative stage, which is from childhood to adolescence, how come someone who was born around the vicinity of his nativity, grew up there and had his primary to tertiary education there before getting a job in Lagos, from where he constantly shuttle to his village, is given a separatist tag of “a returnee”?

With Lagos as a case point, one of the contradictions of the Nigerian federation, which is against the spirit of an ideal federations, is that while a citizen’s hands are busied every day for a living in the city his heart remains in his village. That accounted for why a person living and working in Lagos goes to his village to enroll in the voters’ register. If a person residing in Victoria Island for decades is asked to choose a road for construction he would rather mention with alacrity roads in his village and not anyone around the neighbourhood of his residency.

In the late 1980s or thereabout, Ray Ekpu packaged a fundraising programme for his village in Akwa Ibom and brought Arthur Nzeribe, who announced a scholarship foundation for indigent students of the community to study in universities. Recently, when Udeme Ufot of the SO & U advertising firm clocked 60 all roads for his friends across the country, the de crème de la crème, were leading to his village at Etinan in Akwa Ibom for a thanksgiving all because he wanted “to draw attention” to deplorable roads passing through his village.

Granted that the meaning of “returnee” is as assumed by those making a taunt of it, what is wrong in a country like Nigeria, where high premium is placed on state of origin over residency for an indigene who intends to join politics in his country home?

From antiquity to contemporary time, history abound of leaders that return to their nativity and assume some sort of deus ex machina role. Think of the biblical Moses in the liberation movement in the ancient Israel! In the same vein, two most prominent and powerful Igbos, in my estimation, are legendary Nnamdi Azikiwe, known across the globe as Zik of Africa, and Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The two of them were born in Zungeru, in the present day Niger State in November 1904 and 1933 respectively. Zik was educated in the United States. On returning to Nigeria, he lived in Lagos, where he had his major exploits in politics. Ojukwu, who was fluent in Hausa and Yoruba before speaking his native Igbo, was also brought up in Lagos.

Though, Zik’s pan-Nigerianness and pan-Africaness have been a subject of criticism among a segment of the Igbos, owing to Nigeria’s ethnocentrism, the fact remains that the Igbos were unalloyed in their commitment to being loyal and ever committed to following Zik while his robustly engaged political career lasted. In the case of Ojukwu, the fact that 50 years after, the disastrous relics of the Nigerian Civil War still remain a sore to the Igbos in Nigeria, yet the Igbos remain unregretful for faithfully identifying with Ojukwu, who was the main prosecutor on the Biafran side of the war. Their Zungeru birth place did not count while their cosmopolitan orientation was considered a plus for the Igbos to get to their envisaged place in the Nigerian nation.

Who really is a returnee in Akwa Ibom? Let us take a look at those who eke out a living through their toils in Lagos or elsewhere and at the same time have filial identification with the plight and aspirations of their native community. Let us compare the former with those that attain prominence through mandate given to them to render service to the public and at the end of their service they relocate to Abuja or elsewhere outside Akwa Ibom because they have fed fat and elevated to status no longer fit for habitation in the Akwa Ibom environment. Let us also take a glance at a politician with serial record of profiteering in elections after elections in Akwa Ibom, who leaves to unwind elsewhere, leaving his followers in the lurch, only to return for next election.

All Akwa Ibomites anywhere in the world should be unapologetic in condemning any attempt by any individual or group persons to smear certain people and spew exclusionary rule in the pursuit of their personal political ambition. If at all, there is anything edible in a pack of unconstitutional exclusionary rule, it is only its momentary palatability in the mouth of those spewing it. It is a trouble to the stomach since its indigestibility lead to a vicious complex ailment.

Exclusion is an anathema to democracy. It promotes narrowness that democracy antagonizes and kills the ennobling essence of all-ness and openness that democracy epitomizes. Since democracy offers a market place for diversities let all sort of people – fake home grown and real home grown, returnees and the runaway – flock together till harvest time.